In December 2020, as President Donald Trump grasped for ways to nullify his electoral defeat, a draft executive order circulated in his White House that would have empowered the U.S. military and intelligence community to intervene in the vote certification process. The idea for the order appears to have originated with retired Army colonel Phil Waldron while working with Michael Flynn and Sidney Powell. Waldron had already sought to invalidate voting results in Michigan, Arizona, and Georgia, and remained in close coordination with Trump’s personal legal team. The order instructed Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller to “seize, collect, retain, and analyze” voting records and infrastructure across the country. Miller would have carte blanche authority to federalize National Guard units to assist in the operation. Within sixty days, the Pentagon’s elections analysis would be forwarded to Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John Ratcliffe to add “appropriate supporting information” and deliver the results to the president and key members of the cabinet. Trump himself was reportedly aware of the proposal and did nothing to discourage it.

The order represented an unprecedented militarization of the U.S. elections administration. Its objective was likely the delegitimization of the 2020 election and the creation of emergency conditions in which Trump might have extended his term.

Although contemporary far-right media was filled with false claims of domestic voter fraud and stolen ballots, these incidents were not the focus of the order. Instead, it centered on the specter of foreign interference. By alleging hostile foreign activities, the order advanced arguments that could not be readily checked or challenged. Crucially, by invoking the threat of foreign actors, the order also justified the mobilization of military resources. As a historical document, the order illustrates how foreign interference concerns can be harnessed to delegitimize election outcomes. One should expect future attacks on U.S. election integrity to follow a similar model.

From Conspiracy Theory to Executive Order

The order made far-reaching assertions. It claimed that Dominion Voting Systems, the second-largest U.S. supplier of electronic voting machines, was “heavily controlled by foreign agents, countries, and interests.” This showed “probable cause” of “international and foreign interference.” Supposed vulnerabilities in the vote tabulation systems also indicated probable cause of “fraud and numerous malicious actions.” But it wasn’t just Dominion. The order alleged that there was probable cause that all voting machine vendors “[had] the same flaws and were subject to foreign interference” and that “votes were in fact altered and manipulated contrary to the will of the voters.” Citing an October 2020 incident in which Iranian agents targeted and harassed Florida voters, the order declared further probable cause of “a massive cyber-attack by foreign interests on our crucial national infrastructure surrounding the election.”

Each of these claims was based in falsehood and misrepresentation. Dominion Voting Systems was not subject to foreign ownership or control. System vulnerabilities alleged by the order were physically impossible. Indeed, the Trump campaign itself had already internally concluded nearly all these allegations were false. The one claim that had not been fabricated—that Iran had interfered in the 2020 election—was instead heavily exaggerated. While the order implied that Iranian agents had achieved lasting access to Florida’s voting infrastructure, in reality they abused a website misconfiguration to download a tranche of voter registration files. The Iranians made a copy; they did not change data. The details of this attack, as well as its limited scope, had already been made public by U.S. election officials on Oct. 30, 2020.

Instead of a factual document, the order is better understood as the culmination of a long-running disinformation campaign. For months, Trump had primed his followers to expect foreign attacks on the election. A June 2020 tweet by Trump claiming, without proof, that “MILLIONS OF MAIL-IN BALLOTS WILL BE PRINTED BY FOREIGN COUNTRIES” inspired fourteen alarmist Fox News segments in that month alone. When pressed in a July 2020 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee to substantiate Trump’s claim, Attorney General William Barr failed to do so. Instead, he insisted, it was simply “common sense” that foreign interference would take place.

Far-right conspiracy theorists had taken this narrative further, citing Russian revisionist history around the pro-democracy “color revolutions” that had swept Ukraine and other countries of the former Soviet Bloc in the early 2000s—movements which Russia attributed to U.S. intelligence services. These conspiracy theorists claimed that Deep State operatives were now deploying the same color revolution handbook in the United States, aided by unspecified foreign agents. Analysis by the Election Integrity Partnership (of which I was a coordinator) found that color-revolution-related narratives surged in popularity beginning in August 2020. After the election, they became an integral part of the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theory canon.

The draft order elevated and legitimized these falsehoods, seeking to use the power of the White House to write them into the federal record. Even if the order had stopped there—simply alleging foreign interference without authorizing a government response—its issuance would have significantly increased the strength and durability of the Stop the Steal movement, whose adherents were ultimately responsible for the violence of January 6.

But the order aspired to much more. It prescribed a military takeover of U.S. voting infrastructure, to be overseen by appointees who owed their positions and authority to a president who had just lost re-election. At worst, such an event would have shattered the expectation of free and fair elections in the United States. At best—if military officers resisted and the courts interceded—it would have sparked a constitutional crisis.

In either case, the order’s activation of National Guard units was grounded in its claims of foreign interference. The authors, presumably with access to someone familiar with the national security bureaucracy, understood that the order could best maintain a veil of legality if it cited the machinations of foreign powers instead of the actions of American citizens. By alleging foreign threats, the order would also allow the White House to make it harder for courts to compel the disclosure of evidence or for journalists to independently rebut the executive branch’s claims. A concurrent memo circulated among Trump allies (and whose provenance remains murky) took this logic further, envisioning how foreign interference claims could be harnessed to circumvent Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requirements and use the National Security Agency to surveil citizens and organizations that Trump had falsely accused of fraud.

False Foreign Interference Claims Pose Risk to Future Elections

Although the order was never issued, it should remain a dire concern. A faction of Trump allies sought to justify the deployment of the U.S. military to delay the vote certification process; they planned to use fears of foreign interference to get the job done. Some old events should be revisited in light of this new evidence. In particular, a January 2021 report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) analytic ombudsman found that DNI Ratcliffe and his senior staff were responsible for the “outrageous misrepresentation” and politicization of intelligence community findings, publicly minimizing some threats while magnifying others. The January 6 Select Committee investigation should determine if those ODNI appointees were aware of any plan to use foreign interference claims as a pretext for domestic military intervention.

Revelation of the order’s existence raises new challenges for the Biden administration. Foreign interference, of course, is not just a political football. It remains a serious threat, enabled by the scale and reach of modern social media platforms and illustrated by the legacy of the 2016 Russian operation. Only after long bureaucratic struggle has the United States begun to prioritize this challenge with initiatives like the ODNI’s Foreign Malign Influence Center, which will centralize intelligence efforts to identify and combat foreign meddling. These efforts are urgently necessary. Yet it is also important to consider how such organizations could one day be co-opted by politically motivated actors, and to create mechanisms now to ensure the consistency, transparency, and accountability of future foreign interference claims.

The draft order also poses difficult questions for the disinformation studies community. The number of research organizations and for-profit companies devoted to the detection of online manipulation has risen precipitously since 2016, creating what journalist Claire Wardle has described as the “disinformation industrial complex.” These organizations are heavily incentivized to announce findings of foreign interference, as doing so grabs headlines and attracts new business and donors. A study by the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council (which I led) found that dozens of foreign interference allegations made during the 2020 election lacked evidence or context. This is obviously a problem for the research field. But it also represents a more fundamental threat to American democracy, making it possible that shoddy attributions may be cited months or years later to delegitimize future elections. Ironically, even the study of information conflict has become fodder for potential disinformation operations.

This order reveals the extent to which Trump’s allies weighed authoritarian action in the final days of his presidency, seeking to use disinformation and raw executive power to nullify a democratic mandate. Despite the opprobrium of January 6 and Trump’s ultimate concession, these ideas have not been widely discredited among Trump’s supporters. If the unsettled conditions of the 2020 election repeat themselves and similar individuals find themselves adjacent to power, they may try this strategy again.


Image: An election worker takes ballots from a sorting machine on Election Day at the King County Elections office in Renton, Washington on November 3, 2020. (Photo by JASON REDMOND/AFP via Getty Images)