Donald Trump announces his new bid for president last month at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla.

Donald Trump announces his new bid for president last month at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla. (Thomas Simonetti for The Washington Post )

Former president Donald Trump is back to leading Republicans in cries of election "fraud," but what he is referring to has almost entirely changed.

When Trump suggested in an online post earlier this month that the Constitution could be terminated to redo the 2020 election or declare him the winner, the "UNPRECEDENTED FRAUD" that he said required this "UNPRECEDENTED CURE" was no longer a conspiracy involving counterfeit mail ballots or sabotaged voting machines. Those claims have been thoroughly debunked in audits, litigation and outside reviews.

Instead, Trump was now advancing a new theory of how the election was "stolen" from him: a supposed scheme among social media companies, the FBI and the Democrats to suppress information that might have helped Trump's campaign. The claim is fueled in part by new Twitter owner Elon Musk's decision to release internal documents about the platform's brief suppression of a 2020 news story about then-candidate Joe Biden's son amid concerns it might be the result of disinformation efforts.

"The biggest thing to come out of the Twitter Targeting Hoax is that the Presidential Election was RIGGED - And that's as big as it can get!!!" Trump said in another post on his Truth Social platform on Dec. 9.

This new spin has quickly won the backing of many Republicans and right-wing media sources. Those reinforcements come at a critical time for Trump, as he attempts a political comeback amid increasing isolation from other party leaders. Several recent surveys show Trump trailing Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, in early presidential primary polling.

Many Republicans have faulted Trump for dragging down the party's midterm election results with his focus on election denial, and his 2024 campaign announcement speech on Nov. 15 conspicuously lacked his usual claims of fraud in the 2020 election results. But now, seizing on the recent Twitter disclosures, Trump is pounding away at 2020 again. And though some Republican leaders denounced the suggestion of suspending the Constitution, many Republicans have joined Trump in demanding investigations into the Twitter controversy or alleging election manipulation.

"The reason this is happening right now is because they had some defeats, and there's, like, a crisis where many people are turning away from Trump and splitting the movement," said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian at New York University and the author of "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present." "Think about how much he and others have invested in indoctrinating people with this language of a 'rigged election.' You can't just give all that up. You have to keep the conspiracy mentality going."

Trump spokesman Steven Cheung emphasized the new theme in a statement. "President Trump has been proven correct time and time again, and the latest revelations about how woke liberals at Twitter meddled in an election and suppressed important information is further proof that Big Tech put their thumb on the scale to benefit Democrats," he said. "If they can do this to President Trump, imagine what they are doing to everyday Americans."

Even before Musk started releasing company communications this month, complaints of social media censorship had become a fixture of Trump's repertoire. In midterm rallies, Trump repeatedly claimed that Twitter's suppression of the New York Post article about Hunter Biden's laptop cost him 17 points at the polls. It was not clear where he derived that estimate.

Other Republicans were also shifting to emphasize social media. In a debate in a U.S. Senate race in Arizona, Republican candidate Blake Masters moved to modify his earlier proclamation that "I think Trump won in 2020" by acknowledging he hadn't seen evidence of vote tampering but claimed the federal government "forced" social media companies to block information that would have helped Trump win. At that time, Trump took exception to that reframing.

"I heard you did great on the debate, but a bad election answer," Trump told Masters in a phone call that was recorded and released as part of a Fox News documentary. Trump added, "You gotta go stronger on that one thing."

Now, though, Trump has himself pivoted to make much the same point. The theme gained traction from an August podcast interview in which Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that the FBI warned Facebook officials about Russian propaganda but that he did not recall if it mentioned the Hunter Biden story specifically.

In addition, a lawsuit by the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana alleging that government officials "colluded" with technology companies to censor social media has generated depositions, including one from an FBI agent who coordinated regular meetings with social media companies about election misinformation. The agent testified that the Hunter Biden story was not discussed.

In the newly released Twitter documents, some company officials expressed caution or uncertainty about whether the laptop story violated Twitter's policy against hacked materials. While some of the laptop information has since been authenticated, it remains uncertain how it was obtained.

Congressional Republicans, including the incoming chairmen of the House Oversight and Judiciary committees, are now clamoring to investigate Twitter's handling of the Hunter Biden story as part of larger probes into alleged politicization at the FBI and the president's son's business dealings. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, who is trying to shore up the conference's right flank to win the speaker's gavel, has pledged to subpoena former intelligence officials who signed a public letter warning that the Hunter Biden story had "all the classic earmarks of a Russian information operation."

"I think there are all kinds of questions that need to be answered, and we're determined to get there," Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who is poised to lead the Judiciary Committee, said at a November news conference. "We know that had an impact on the election."

Jordan referenced surveys "where thousands and thousands of voters across this country say that might have impacted their decision in the election in 2020." His spokesman provided a poll by a right-leaning outfit published in the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, claiming that more than half of 501 adults following the story said knowing the material was "real and not 'disinformation'" would probably have changed their vote.

Another survey shortly after the election by a right-wing organization claimed to find that "full awareness of the Hunter Biden scandal" would have flipped the electoral college. The group posed the question in a way that misrepresented the facts of the case.

Notwithstanding Twitter's actions, the Hunter Biden story was well publicized before the election, as demonstrated by Google search traffic. Trump also raised the claims during the first debate, viewed by an estimated 73.1 million people.

The Trump campaign has been sending fundraising emails with subject lines such as "FRAUD" asking supporters, "Did you see the BIG story about Twitter and various forms of government fraud, specifically Election Fraud?" The campaign has also been promoting articles from Fox News, the New York Post and other right-wing media outlets emphasizing Twitter, the FBI and the Hunter Biden story.

"The last election was influenced by the FBI," Fox News host Tucker Carlson said in a Dec. 7 prime-time appearance. "If this were happening in another country, in a third-world country, the State Department would declare the election illegitimate, because it would have been . . . That's absolutely election interference."

In a video announcement released Thursday to the New York Post, Trump said as president he would issue an executive order banning federal agencies from "colluding" with businesses to censor Americans or label domestic speech as misinformation or disinformation, and would root out "every federal bureaucrat who has engaged in domestic censorship - directly or indirectly."

No evidence has emerged that the federal government, which was led at the time by Trump, controlled what social media companies allowed to circulate. In the course of weekly consultations with Twitter, federal law enforcement agencies warned that foreign countries might try to hack people involved in political campaigns and release damaging material over social media, according to a declaration by a Twitter official as part of the company's defense to a Federal Election Commission complaint. The official (whom Musk has since fired) said he learned from these meetings "that there were rumors that a hack-and-leak operation would involve Hunter Biden" before the New York Post's story was published.

"Twitter was just a tool in the hands of the deep state in attacking President Trump and doing all they can to prevent President Trump from being reelected," Trump campaign senior adviser Boris Epshteyn said in a recent interview on former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon's podcast. "The crime is the stealing of the 2020 election from President Donald J. Trump."

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