Memo circulated among Trump allies advocated using NSA data in attempt to prove stolen election
The Washington Post February 3, 2022
WASHINGTON - The memo used the banal language of government bureaucracy, but the proposal it advocated was extreme: President Donald Trump should invoke the extraordinary powers of the National Security Agency and Defense Department to sift through raw electronic communications in an attempt to show that foreign powers had intervened in the 2020 election to help Joe Biden win.
Proof of foreign interference would “support next steps to defend the Constitution in a manner superior to current civilian-only judicial remedies,” argued the Dec. 18, 2020, memo, which was circulated among Trump allies.
The document, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, laid out a plan for the president to appoint three men to lead this effort. One was a lawyer attached to a military intelligence unit; another was a veteran of the military who had been let go from his National Security Council job after claiming that Trump was under attack by deep-state forces including “globalists” and “Islamists.”
The third was a failed Republican congressional candidate, Michael Del Rosso, who sent a copy of the memo to Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., who confirmed to The Post he received the document from Del Rosso. An aide to Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., also said his office received the document but declined to say who sent it. Del Rosso did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The previously unreported proposal, whose provenance remains murky, in some ways mirrors other radical ideas that extremists who denied Biden’s victory were working to sell to Trump in the weeks between the November 2020 election and the Jan. 6, 2021, siege of the U.S. Capitol. Many of those proposals centered on using government powers to seize voting machines.
But the proposal to seize and analyze “NSA unprocessed raw signals data” on behalf of Trump’s electoral ambitions raises particular legal and ethical concerns and distinguishes the new memo from other attempts that have come to light. The NSA collects a broad range of electronic data, including text messages, phone calls, emails, social media posts and satellite communications. By law, the NSA cannot target a U.S. person’s communications without a court order.
The effort also involved players whose names have not yet publicly surfaced in connection to efforts to overturn the election.
The memo outlined a plan in which Trump would ask Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller to tap Del Rosso, former NSC member Richard Higgins and an Army lawyer named Frank Colon to carry out the effort.
Miller told The Post he was not aware of the proposal and was not asked to enact it. Colon disavowed any knowledge of the memo, while Higgins did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
The Dec. 18 memo was just one in a swirl of last-ditch efforts to prevent Biden’s legitimate victory from being recognized as Trump and his backers grew more desperate after the courts rejected their claims of fraud. Some of his allies mounted a series of efforts to get the memo into Trump’s hands in his final days in office, according to people familiar with the attempts, although no evidence has emerged to suggest they succeeded.
“That period in time was amateur hour with people who did not know Trump or had never met with Trump before in their lives attempting to get into the Oval Office to get authorized to do investigations that the rest of the government had examined and had said there was no evidence for,” said Michael Pillsbury, an informal adviser to Trump at the time.
Cramer said Del Rosso sent the memo to his office after a Jan. 4 meeting that both men attended at the Trump International Hotel, which was organized by MyPillow chief executive Mike Lindell, a prominent backer of Trump’s bogus election fraud claims.
Cramer and Sen. Cynthia M. Lummis, R-Wyo., joined some two dozen others crammed into a ground-floor hotel conference room to discuss election fraud allegations, according to Cramer and an aide to Lummis. Participants recalled that Johnson also attended, via videoconference. The details of the meeting, which took place two days before the attack on the U.S. Capitol, have not been previously reported. The meeting was similar to a briefing held in a congressional office building the next day for members of the House.
Michael Flynn, who resigned in 2017 as Trump’s national security adviser and had advocated using the military to “rerun” the election in battleground states, also extended an invitation to at least one senator and his staff, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Flynn did not respond to requests for comment.
That person and others interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations and sensitive documents.
What the senators heard from a handful of presenters were some of the most fantastical claims among those alleging that the election had been stolen - including, according to Cramer, that the 2020 vote had been influenced by foreign powers and that proper investigation required gaining access to voting machines around the country.
“They wanted to get the machines,” Cramer, who later voted to confirm Biden’s victory, told The Post in an interview. He said the presenters accused various countries meddling including China and Venezuela, and a “lot of theories but not a lot of evidence.”
Lindell said he didn’t recall discussion of getting access to machines. He said the goal of the Trump hotel meeting with senators was to line up congressional allies to delay the Jan. 6 certification of Biden’s election victory, making time to examine votes in key states.
“We were hoping that the senators would give it 10 more days to give it back to the states,” Lindell said in an interview. “We were in an anomaly in history. We still are.”
The Jan. 4 meeting was part of a sustained, weeks-long effort by Trump allies to persuade the president and other high-level U.S. officials to take extraordinary actions, including employing the government’s military and intelligence powers, because they claimed the Nov. 3 election had been manipulated by foreign actors. There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the election or any indication that foreign interference helped Biden win.
While Trump did not ultimately order the national security establishment to intervene on his behalf, such proposals have become a particular focus of attention for the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attacks because of the extreme danger they would have posed to core tenets of American democracy.
As Jan. 6 approached, a loose network of self-styled technical consultants and intelligence experts redoubled their efforts to press for extreme measures. Some of the figures involved are only now coming into public view.
They conducted phone calls and meetings to coordinate their efforts, many of which were focused on the House, where Trump had numerous close allies. But the Electoral Count Act required that at least one senator join a member of the House in formally contesting the electoral votes of a state to prompt further debate.
Trump’s supporters faced a more challenging task persuading members of the Senate, where then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Republicans should not challenge Biden’s victory. Trump’s allies were hunting for others to join Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., in saying they would defy McConnell.
Lindell said he was surprised at the size of the crowd at the Trump hotel meeting. He had simply wanted to make sure that his friend, Cramer, knew about the purported election fraud. Many people had reached out with what they said was evidence, Lindell said, and he had told some of them to come to the hotel that morning.
“I didn’t know any of them,” he said. “I had never met them before in my life.”
Cramer said in an interview that those in attendance - who included not only high-profile personalities but also less-well-known “people from the intelligence arena” - made clear that they wanted access to voting machines to conduct their own investigations. They laid out a variety of baseless conspiracy theories that included foreign powers such as China and Venezuela hacking voting machines, according to people in attendance.
“The whole point was getting a message to the president and the vice president on what they should be doing to stop the certification,” Cramer said.
Cramer said that he did not find the presentation compelling.
“Honestly, I was not impressed by these people,” said Cramer, who said that he attended as a favor to his friend Lindell and that he brought along his wife.
Through a spokesperson, Johnson acknowledged he attended the meeting remotely. Earlier in December, as chairman of the Senate’s Homeland Security committee, Johnson hosted a hearing on alleged election irregularities. “Following the hearing, myself and my staff continued to gather information and consider allegations, that is why I joined the meeting,” he said in a statement to The Post.
Cramer and Johnson both ultimately voted to certify Biden’s victory Jan. 6, when Congress formally counted the electoral college votes.
An aide to Lummis confirmed her attendance at the Trump hotel meeting and said she was unconvinced that there was widespread voter fraud or that the election was stolen. She voted to object to the certification of Biden’s win in Pennsylvania because of unrelated concerns about that state’s vote-by-mail law, the aide said.
It is unclear whether Trump was aware of the Jan. 4 meeting with senators. A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.
Attendees of the Trump hotel meeting included figures who have been known to be central to the effort to overturn Biden’s win, such as Lindell, lawyer Sidney Powell and former Overstock chief executive Patrick Byrne, who confirmed his attendance. Powell did not respond to requests for comment.
But they also included less familiar characters who claimed ties to the intelligence community.
One presenter was Don Berlin, according to documents reviewed by The Post and people in attendance at the meeting. Berlin is a private intelligence operative who has held a high-level security clearance, worked for a time as an expert at the Defense Department and has performed classified work for the U.S. government on behalf of defense contractors, his lawyer has said in court filings in two civil matters since 2018.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Berlin was involved in a GOP effort to hunt for emails from Hillary Clinton’s personal server, according to a 2020 Senate Intelligence Committee report.
Hours after the Jan. 4 meeting at the Trump hotel, Berlin sent an email to Republican Senate staffers, according to a copy of the message obtained by The Post. He wrote that he understood that Cramer and Johnson had been skeptical of the presentation and had asked to see “actual evidence.”
“In essence,” Berlin wrote, senators had said “show us the beef - not the bun.” He sent them a link to two documents. Because the link is no longer working, The Post was unable to examine the documents.
Berlin did not respond to phone messages, emails or a note left at his home.
Another attendee of the Jan. 4 meeting, Del Rosso, sent to Cramer the memo calling for Trump to use the NSA and DOD. Del Rosso, a former technology executive whose role in efforts to overturn the election has not been previously reported, ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House in 2016 from Virginia and has had ties to the right-wing Claremont Institute. He was also a Trump campaign surrogate, according to his resume obtained by The Post.
Staff for Johnson received a copy of the memo on Jan. 13, a spokeswoman for the senator said. She said the staff took no further action and that Johnson did not become aware of the memo until The Post’s recent inquiry.
The memo advocated that Trump use supposed authority under a document known as NSPM-13 - a classified presidential directive for offensive cyber operations adopted in 2018 - to examine electronic intelligence collected by the NSA for signs of foreign election interference.
“This inquiry would be done confidentially and could be completed in several days,” the memo read, warning that civilian court remedies were not enough. “To treat this solely as a legal issue is to ensure that the USG’s response is under-scoped and inadequate.”
The plan, according to the memo, was to then declassify the purported evidence to help Trump win.
The bottom of the memo included a notation suggesting a desire to keep its contents from becoming public: “Proprietary and privileged - dispose via shreding,” it read, misspelling the last word.
The memo listed Colon, the Army lawyer, as a “point of contact for legal and execution logistics,” including an email and phone number. Attached to the memo were detailed page-long resumes for both Del Rosso and Colon.
Michael Daniel, the chief executive of the Cyber Threat Alliance and the cybersecurity coordinator under President Barack Obama, called the strategy outlined in the memo “a crazy tangle of things” that appeared to involve a misunderstanding of the White House policy memo’s powers and a proposal that would have significant legal and privacy implications.
“To use an overused term, all of this would have been completely unprecedented. I can’t imagine anything like that ever having happened before,” he said. “It would have been a radical departure from normal procedure.”
At the time, Colon was serving as a senior legal counsel to the Army, according to the copy of his résumé attached to the election memo, which said he specialized in cyber operations and intelligence. Colon described himself as a “legal adviser to the nation’s top military leaders” on a LinkedIn page that has since been removed.
In a brief telephone interview with The Post, Colon denied having any involvement in the election memo or having attended the meeting. He claimed he did not know Del Rosso, Berlin or Higgins, never communicated with them about the election and did not know how his name and résumé - which included his home address, personal email address and cellphone number - came to be included in the plan.
“I have no idea what you’re referring to,” Colon said.
Colon claimed he may have been selected because he had written an article recently on cybersecurity. “I can’t help it if somebody writes my name on a bathroom wall, either,” he said.
Colon’s name first surfaced publicly on Jan. 15, 2021, while the country was still reeling from the violence of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.
On that day, Post photographer Jabin Botsford took a picture of Lindell, the MyPillow executive, exiting the White House with a coffee cup and a document that mentioned “martial law” and the “insurrection act.” The portions of the document visible in Botsford’s photograph called for Trump loyalist Kash Patel to be installed as acting CIA director and for Colon to be named “Acting National Security” adviser.
At the time, Colon disavowed any knowledge of Lindell’s proposal, and White House aides said Lindell met only briefly with Trump, who declined to act on Lindell’s proposals as he prepared to decamp from the White House.
An Army spokesman confirmed Colon currently serves as a civilian legal adviser assigned to a military intelligence brigade headquartered at Fort Meade in Maryland. The spokesman said the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command launched an investigation in January 2021, following the media reports about the Lindell documents.
“The results of the investigation found no evidence any individual assigned to INSCOM acted inappropriately in their capacity as a Department of the Army Civilian employee with respect to the election,” the spokesman said.
In an interview with The Post, Lindell - who has spent millions of dollars over the past year promoting bogus claims that the 2020 election was stolen - said that he had indeed been asked to deliver an envelope to Trump if he was able to secure a meeting with him. Lindell couldn’t recall who asked him except that it was a group of lawyers.
He said he didn’t know who Colon was or what was in the envelope that he ultimately gave to aides at the White House. He hadn’t read what was inside, he said.
“Everybody was bringing me stuff in January and December,” Lindell said. “I became a hub of a wheel of information.”
The Washington Post’s Tom Hamburger and Alice Crites contributed to this report.